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Change Police Training Tactics to Stop Shootings

Police training not only should focus on de-escalation of conflict, but also the reprogramming of the automatic fear response.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Two shooting deaths of black men by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota within 48 hours have reignited debates about law enforcement’s treatment of black people.

And once again protests about race and police officers’ far too frequent deadly encounters with black men and women have become a predictable response.

But although racism among some police officers is no doubt part of the problem, it is not the only problem.

In the case of Alton Sterling, the responses from the #PoliceLivesMatter advocates include the usual playbook of assassinating the victim’s character and blaming the victim’s actions as justifiable reasons for the use of deadly force.

On the other hand, the responses from Sterling’s family, friends and #BlackLivesMatter advocates focus on yet another black man murdered by the police.

In the case of Philando Castile, a character assassination will be more difficult. He did all the right things: He informed the officer that he had a weapon, and he was attempting to produce his license and registration per the officer’s request. Yet his law-abiding behavior was not enough.

We should not allow ourselves to fall prey to this distracting narrative. This is not about Sterling’s character, and certainly not about Castile’s character, no more than it was about the character of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, or so many more black individuals killed by the police.

And although race is almost always the subtext, police killings of black individuals cannot always be attributed to the race of the police officers. The deaths of David Joseph in Austin, James Brissette in New Orleans and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, among many others, all came at the hands of black police officers.

But regardless of who is doing the killing, black males are still 21 times as likely to be killed by police as their white male counterparts, according to ProPublica.

Why? All one has to do is look at social research.

In one psychological review study, researchers found several factors that contribute to these tragedies. First, police officers who are less likely to acknowledge the humanity of blacks may be more likely to use excessive force on black males. This belief may not necessarily be explicit, but rather implicit and below the awareness of the police officer. 

Second, the stereotype that blacks are more prone to be criminals also contributes to the targeting of black males. Researchers have found that black people were more likely to be associated with crime-related objects, such as guns. Other researchers found that blacks are perceived as more violent as evidenced by innocent victims such as Trayvon Martin being conceptualized as “thugs.”

But perhaps the most pressing factor is a belief that black males in particular are superhuman.  Some perceive that blacks have a higher pain threshold than other racial groups and therefore can withstand and overcome extreme force.

This specific belief contributes to the fear that some police officers have of black men. It’s an automatic, unadulterated, base response of fear. And this often-unacknowledged fear of black men often results in unjust and horrific tragedies.

Therefore, what becomes imperative is that police training not only focus on de-escalation of conflict, but also the reprogramming of the automatic fear response that some police officers may have of black men.

Law enforcement agencies across the country should use social research and the assistance of social scientists. There are measures available that are designed to assess one’s implicit biases. In fact, one such test, called the Implicit Attitude Test, is designed to capture the strength of associations one has about people or objects.

Although there are certainly ongoing debates to the scientific validity of such tests in what the results actually mean, it is nonetheless a useful tool in helping an individual identify possible negative or positive associations they have with different races. These measures can help police officers assess their level of implicit bias so they can address it before something happens.

We are at a critical junction in this country. Each loss of life at the hands of police diminishes our collective humanity and causes racial disharmony and mistrust. Police killings have to stop. Changing training tactics so more police officers can overcome their potential biases is a good place to start.  

Kevin Cokley is a professor and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin. Germine Awad is an associate professor of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. 

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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